Raising a Family on a Single Income

A couple of weeks ago, Briana from Go Banking Rates asked me what it was like to raise a family on a single income.  Since then, two other people have asked me the same question.  Living on a single income is a choice that dramatically affects a family’s finances.  So, I thought I would explain the reasons for our choice and the consequences that came with that decision. 

There is no Perfect Choice

My FamilyWhether couples choose to both work for a higher income or have someone stay at home to take care of the kids, there seems to be a lot of guilt that comes with that decision.  The choice is really as simple time vs. money for your family.  But, the effects on finances and lifestyle are anything but simple.  Most of the parents I talk to are wondering if they made the right decision to work or stay at home.  There is no guaranteed right answer, either way.

I had very personal reasons for choosing a traditional family lifestyle.  When I was young, my Mom stayed at home and took care of us.  Then, she took a part-time job to help out and she was gone more often.  After my parents divorced, my Mom worked full-time while putting herself through college.  So, I saw three different family situations and I knew all about the sacrifices involved.

When we decided to get married, I envisioned working together as a team. I wanted to divide up the work load and conquer what we were each best at.  My wife and I are both from big families and our family is our main priority.  We wanted to be successful, have a nice lifestyle and provide opportunities for our children, just like any family.  But, we didn’t want our kids coming home to an empty house after school let out.  We wanted to be more involved with their lives and to influence them to make good decisions.

Lifestyle Sacrifices

Supporting a family today costs a lot of money.  And, unless someone has a very high salary, raising kids on a single income will require sacrifices in their standard of living. The loss of a second income is partially offset by lower taxes, work-related costs and child care expenses.  But, there is definitely a drop in discretionary income and that can limit some of your options.

When we were starting out and my paycheck was very small, the reality of living on a single income was brutal.  We only had one car and could barely keep milk in the fridge.  Any small emergency clobbered our budget and ratcheted up our credit card balance.  Another problem was that we live in a very expensive area.  Even though our rent was cheap at the time, the cost to buy a house was way out of our reach.  We had all the basics covered, but there wasn’t any money for fun or entertainment.

Financial Strain

A couple of stressful things happened to our relationship, soon after getting married.  First, I began to resent my wife for being at home all day, while I worked long hours and weekends to pay our bills.  And, I resented the fact that we were still broke, even though I was working so hard to get ahead.  Even worse, my wife started to complain about how all our friends had nicer cars and apartments than us.  This wasn’t fair to me, because most of our friends were dual income and the wives were working to pay for those new cars.

The absolute low-point for me was when we had a house fall out of escrow.  The loan agent was shocked my wife didn’t work and we couldn’t qualify for a loan on my income alone.  As we were unpacking our dishes and putting them back away in our apartment, my wife said something devastating.  She said, “We’ll never get a house.  You don’t know what you are doing.  You are just acting like we’ll get a house because you are too cheap to spend any money.”  After saving for a house for almost ten years, it was the last thing I wanted to hear.

Making it Happen

After losing our escrow deposit and getting chewed out by my wife, I sat down in a moment of self-pity and dreamed about what it would be like if we had more money.  I thought about all of our plans and goals and I wondered why we were failing to reach them.  To the best of my abilities, I had done everything right.  I had worked hard, saved carefully and kept our expenses low.  I knew we were on the right path financially, but our goals seemed farther away than ever.

After a couple of hours going over everything in my mind, I came to a very unpleasant realization.  I was the sole cause of our failure.  We had chosen to live on a single income and it was my job to earn it.  Yet, I was concentrating all of my energy on scrimping and saving.  Soon after I realized this, I had a much more pleasant thought.  If I could increase our income to an acceptable wage, it would speed up the realization of all our goals.  And, it was up to me alone to step up and make it happen.  So, increasing our income became my new goal and it happened faster than I could have imagined.

Pulling Ahead

Two years later, we finally got our house.  It was a nice two-story house a couple of blocks from the beach.  Our friends seemed surprised we were able to afford the house.  They had seen us struggling to make ends meet, not realizing we were saving a lot of our income.  Most important, my wife gained a lot of confidence in me and my ability to make things happen.  Even though there were still plenty of tough times ahead, this was the beginning of a more prosperous life for us.  And, the rest of our goals seemed a lot closer.

Looking Back

Our kids are grown up now and our daughter will turn 18 in just a couple of months.  So, our legal responsibility as parents and control of our children’s lives is coming to an end.  Soon, they will be out on their own and struggling to pay their own bills.  We will never have to look back and wonder if we could have done more for our kids by having a second income, because money and material comfort weren’t that important.  It was the time we spent and the example we set of working hard to achieve a comfortable life.

The other half of the story was the impact this choice had on me.  There’s no question in my mind that I wouldn’t have worked nearly as hard, if I didn’t have the unrelenting pressures of providing for the entire family.  I probably would have worked just hard enough to get by and cruise through life.  All of the years of night school, the side jobs and working weekends, were for my family.  So, my family is a big part of the reason I became successful.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that there’s no single choice that’s right for everyone and someone else’s choice may not be right for you.  So, choose what you feel is best for your family.  Then, don’t waste a single minute feeling guilty.

“No matter what you’ve done for yourself or for humanity, if you can’t look back on having given love and attention to your own family, what have you really accomplished?”

Elbert Hubbard – American Author

Recommended Reading

Five Cent Nickel – Husband Cancels Life Insurance, Wife Divorces Husband
Len Penzo – Five Lessons from my Italian Father on Marriage and Money
Out of Your Rut – 10 Tips to Avoid Money Conflicts in Your Marriage

This post was featured on the Carnival of Personal Finance over at Consumerism Commentary. If you aren’t familiar with the Carnival of Personal Finance, you need to check it out.  It’s the premiere carnival for Finance Blogs.

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18 comments to Raising a Family on a Single Income

  • I feel your pain. We’ve been living on a single income since we got married, and there are definitely times when it seems like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. On the other hand, I don’t think my wife and I would change a thing. Financial security is important, but I don’t mind taking a slower path to it if it means my newborn daughter gets to spend plenty of quality time with her mom. It’s good to see stories that prove it IS doable.

    Also, I’d love to hear more about the steps you took to increase your income.
    Cognoramus recently posted..Easiest Divorce Ever!My Profile

    • Cognoramus,

      The most important thing was for me to realize how underpaid I was. Until that happened, I just figured I couldn’t do much about my salary. Boy, was I wrong.

      First, I checked my job title against the average salaries in my area, using one of the free salary surveys. I found out I was making about 45% less than I should have been.

      So, I put together a one-page review that showed what I was making compared to the industry standard. And, I listed all of the things I had done for the comapany and how I was saving them money on consultants and programmers. I also pointed out that I had worked there for six years, with small raises and I was doing a much higher-level job than I was originally hired in for.

      Then, I went to my boss and asked for a raise. I didn’t ask for the 45%. I only asked for 25%, which was fair to both sides. He was aware of how much trouble I was having getting a house and he gave it to me.

      A year later, another company wanted to hire me, so I asked for the other 20% and I got it. I have never allowed myself to be grossly underpaid since. It’s not fair to me or my family.

      • That sounds like a pretty easy step any private-sector employee should be able to take. Believe it or not, this was the most valuable part of your post for me 🙂
        Cognoramus recently posted..Easiest Divorce Ever!My Profile

        • I am glad I could help.

          I have posted about my frugality and low pay a number of times, because it was the most valuable lesson I ever learned. And, I hope to keep others from making the same mistake.

  • Hi Bret, thanks for sharing your story. I know a few single income families, but all of them have 2+ kids. Frequently, one spouse’s income is less than the cost of childcare + commuting, so it doesn’t even make sense for both to work.

    My mother stayed at home for most of my childhood, and there were definite advantages to that. My favorite was coming home to fresh baked cookies. 🙂 However, that was the 1970s and it was easier to get by on one paycheck. My parents were definitely frugal though – my mom made a lot of our clothes, we rarely ate out, and we grew a lot of our vegetables.
    Jennifer Barry recently posted..6 Reasons Not to Work So HardMy Profile

    • Jennifer,

      Child care is a huge expense, even for the after school programs. The costs to commute, eat lunch and buy work clothes can also add up.

      Most of the dual income families I know either have a wife with a high-paying professional job or the husband and wife both need to work just to cover their bills. It’s probably different in other parts of the country, where housing is more affordable.

  • After the Honeybee got pregnant, we made a conscious decision to live on a single income, so she quit her job as a bankruptcy paralegal and we began living on my engineer’s salary. It’s one of the best decisions we ever made.

    Certainly lots of sacrifices – including limiting the amount of home we were able to afford – but it has worked out beautifully.

    Not only do the kids have the luxury and comfort of a stay-at-home mom, it actually forced us to be much more diligent about managing our personal finances and savings. It is a win win situation if you are willing to accept a smaller income.


    Len Penzo dot Com
    Len Penzo recently posted..Super-Scary Fare- 5 Meals That Bite BackMy Profile

  • Great story, Bret. I like your candor. Also, you do a great job of sharing you felt through this time, and how you came to your current viewpoint and overall situation.

    I agree that there’s no “one size fits all” approach, and we should all do what’s best for us. What’s acceptable for one family might be entirely unacceptable for the other, and vice-versa.
    Squirrelers recently posted..“What’s In a Name”- plus Updates and FavoritesMy Profile

    • Thanks a bunch Wise Squirrel.

      I honestly believe finances are personal and there is a lot more to making these decisions than just the math. That’s why I rarely judge other people’s actions.

  • We had a single income for quite a few years while our daughter was growing up. You can’t put a price on watching “Beverly Hillbillies” and dancing to the theme song during elementary school lunch at home. That memory is worth more than money!

    • Barb & Len,

      I know it’s the right decision for many families. The time you get to spend with your kids is short and it’s gone before you know it. I never look back and wish I had nicer things or more money to spend. Often, time is more precious than money.

  • Bret, thanks so much for writing this post in response to my question. This definitely gave me insight on how much of a challenge this can be. Seeing you and your wife make it on one income is definitely inspirational. I can only imagine how difficult it was, especially with the trials and tribulations that came your way (including increasing your income, handling disappointment, etc.) This is definitely going to be a topic of discussion as a family becomes something I look towards. Now, I know it can be done 🙂 Thanks again for being so candid with your life!
    Briana @ GBR recently posted..Another Personal Finance App What Pageonce Can Do for YouMy Profile

    • You are entirely welcome Briana.

      Sometimes, I worry about posting too much personal information, because really it’s not about me. I like to provide the insights behind some of my decisions (and problems) to help others with theirs. Cold hard facts don’t seem as helpful as real life experiences.

  • It doesn’t sound like it was easy at all and you guys went through your share of challenges, and those are the same tradeoffs I am also thinking about when considering whether we will eventually go for that path or not. We have not yet decided, but I do like the idea of the kids at least having a mom around instead of coming home to an empty home or spending time with strangers. Thanks for sharing your story, Bret!

    • Kevin,

      It’s not that big of a decision. You can always try it out and change your minds later. If money gets too tight, your wife can go back to work, full or part-time. In our case, our minds were made up, so we had to tough it out.

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